A version of this article first appeared in France magazine, July 2010.
Our final group of reds falls into the light-bodied spectrum. And as with both medium-bodied and full-bodied wines, it’s the trilogy of alcohol level, grape variety and tannin that help us understand body in wine. These are overlain by climate issues, which relate back to alcohol – very cool climates don’t provide enough sunshine to make lots of sugar. Grapes with lower sugars make wine with lighter alcohol, which are therefore likely to be lighter bodied.
Starting with grape varieties, there are certain ones which are particularly suited to making lighter styles of wine. The likes of gamay and pinot noir come into their own. And not surprisingly these are grape varieties with low levels of tannin. The balance in the wine is all about the tightrope of fruit and acidity, with tannin playing third fiddle. Of course both these grape varieties can provide medium-bodied wines depending on various factors such as warmer vintages, more concentrated fruit from lower yields, top appellations.
Overt new oak flavours rarely influence light-bodied wines. The flavour and tannic power of oak is likely to dominate the delicate fruit-acid balance. This opens the door to making light-bodied wines from other grape varieties at the easy-drinking, entry level, where full ripeness is easily achieved. The sunny southern Rhône, and the Languedoc are a source of humble, easy drinking wines from such grape varieties as syrah, grenache, carignan which are overtly fruity and simple, and attractively tasty for hitting just those buttons.
A special type of winemaking helps to accentuate the fruit and minimise the tannins. Carbonic maceration involves putting whole bunches of grapes into an oxygen-free tank, often by blanketing the tank with carbon dioxide. An intra-cellular fermentation takes place within the berries, which helps to release the aromatic flavours without extracting too much tannin. This technique is commonly used in southern France to produce light, bright, fruity reds with low tannin. It is also a mainstay of Beaujolais, where the gamay grape reigns.
In terms of cooler climes in France, apart from Champagne, we look to the Loire, to Burgundy, and in some respects Alsace. As well as the sometimes delightfully uncomplicated Gamay de Touraine, the Loire valley has cabernet franc, here at the northernmost limit of its ability to ripen. The trilogy of red wine appellations – Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil – with cabernet franc at their heart, generally make medium-bodied wines in the best, fully ripe vintages, and lighter-bodied wines in other vintages.
The best of the wines from these appellations can even age for a few years in bottle, which is more of a rarity for light-bodied wines where age-worthiness is limited. Remember cabernet franc is a major player on Bordeaux’s right bank, making medium and occasionally full bodied wines. But light bodied wines lack sufficient guts from alcohol and tannin (both preservatives) to age for very long. Part of their raison d’etre is their freshness, youth, perfumed aromatics and fresh fruit characters.
Because of the these factors, and their associated lightness of tannin, light-bodied wines can be successfully chilled slightly to serve, which accentuates the fruit and freshness, making them ideal for sunny summer drinking.
The main other red grape from the Loire, which is then also found in Alsace and on into Burgundy is pinot noir. For pinot noir, whereas light bodied styles are the norm in the Loire and Alsace, Burgundy makes the full gamut of light and medium bodied styles, depending on the vintage, and the quality level, and most light bodied Burgundy will be found at the entry level, and in lighter vintages.
Light bodied wines may indeed be less complex than their more tannic, alcoholic and oak-influenced brethren, but don’t confuse lightness of body with a lack of flavour intensity. Light bodied wines still give good flavours, and intensity of flavour.
Domaine Jean-Jacques Girard, Savigny-lès-Beaune 2007 Burgundy
£15.00 Montrachet Fine Wine Merchants
This is an example of a lighter vintage, plus Jean-Jacques Girard naturally has an elegant style to his wines, which his ancestors first started cultivating in 1529. Here, freshly-picked strawberry aromas add flesh to the fresh core. The focus is on those early-morning picked summer berries, light, with imperceptible tannins, and plenty of fruit intensity.
Domaine de la Chaponne, Morgon 2008, Beaujolais
£11.95 Pallant of Arundel
Third generation vigneron Laurent and his wife Laurence Guillet have 12 hectares in the cru of Morgon. Volcanic and schist soils, and working with older vines averaging 45 years old, add a level of concentration not seen with younger fruit. Traditional fermentation in concrete is finished cool to preserve maximum aromas in this quite delicate grape. A light vintage, with juicy cherry ‘Tunes’ notes, and black cherry flavours, an attractive spiciness amid the light tannins, and a good length of finish.
La Vieille Ferme 2009, Côtes de Ventoux, Perrin et Fils, Rhône Valley
One of those juicy, simple everyday wines from the south, this one made the Perrin brothers, Jean-Pierre and François, who are better known as the owners/winemakers at the famous Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This litte Côtes de Ventoux is a blend of 50% grenache, 20% syrah, 15% carignan and 15% cinsault, made in large cement vats. The focus is on juicy, sweet, crunchy plum and redcurrant fruit in a smooth texture with little tannin.
Domaine Langlois-Château, Saumur Rouge 2007, Loire Valley
£9.19 Wessex Wines
Not the ripest vintage in the Loire, after a wet and cool summer, but September saved the day. Entirely made from cabernet franc and showing delightful youthful exuberance. Smoked black cherries meld with classic cassis and hints of graphite. A tank fermentation accentuates the light, crunchy texture balanced along its fresh spine of acidity.
Domaine Fernand Verpoix, Fleurie, Clos de la Chapelle des Bois 2008
This highly regarded domaine is based in the heart of Fleurie, another cru of the Beaujolais and the gamay grape. This appellation is reported to evoke its name in the wine – Fleurie – floral. Certainly it has a gentle perfume of aromatic sweet fruits, crab apples, cranberries, smoked cherries and crunchy plums. Strawberry conserve rises to the fore on palate, fresh with its acid backbone and light tannins. It’s attractively balanced with a fresh intensity of primary fruit flavour.